There has been a great deal of attention paid to the plight of the Syrian refugees, and sadly, speculation that they will cause problems later on. In fact, what we know is that leaving millions of people in a desperate unsettled state is the real threat to our security long term. Children need stability, education, and the hope of a decent future. Deny them that and we are creating the conditions for decades of political and social instability.
The good news is that we can avoid these problems. As many countries resettle the refugees, it’s becoming clear we need to intervene quickly in the lives of children. A recent report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees reminds us that their development depends on access to education, trauma-informed treatment and stable, employed families. Fortunately, we know how to help. I recently joined a working group to develop mental health supports for child refugees in Ontario, Canada. The School Mental Health-ASSIST group has just published an info-sheet with very practical suggestions for helping children integrate into school. There is a lot we can do.
Create a welcoming environment
It’s unfortunate that victims of violence are being looked at as future perpetrators. That is both morally wrong and incredibly short-sighted. In fact, we reap what we sow. My work on resilience is showing that when we create hospitable welcoming environments children become full and equal participants in the social institutions that benefit everyone. It’s especially interesting to note that many Syrians were well educated before the war. Many immigrants do exceptionally well, beating national averages when it comes to household incomes, largely because of the emphasis parents place on education for their children. If you are Irish, Jewish, Vietnamese or any one of dozens of other ethnoracial groups that were forced to migrate, you should already know this. It is part of your story. Just like the Syrians, your ancestors too were met with xenophobia and violence through no fault of their own.
Stop racism and the politics of exclusion, and we will raise a generation of refugee children who will contribute to our communities.
The ASSIST group recommends including parents and students in school orientations. Post signs in multiple languages to smooth transitions and second language learning. Talk about mental health issues and link children to resources. Remember that refugee children have just experienced or witnessed unthinkable violence. They need time to adjust and heal. With the right supports refugee kids can overcome their traumatic pasts.
If you are a teacher and you have a child in your classroom who has experienced war, a smile and warm greeting at the start of each day may be the first step towards a cure for PTSD. You might also want to explain how school routines work, offer quiet spaces for the child to relax, encourage the child’s use of their first language in the classroom and at home (fluency in their first language speeds their ability to learn a second), and of course help the other students develop compassion for their new classmate.
The ASSIST group has also been helping educators (and parents) identify the early signs of poor adjustment in child refugees. And there are quite a few. Bowel and bladder troubles, headaches, trouble sleeping and eating, and for older children, substance abuse and delinquency. Teachers can also be on the look out for exaggerated startle responses, emotional numbness, depression, worries about one’s family and reluctance to learn a new language, or disengagement from peers and classroom activities. When these behaviors are observed children may just need patience and a predictable environment. Most kids heal. If the problems persist, then professional help is likely needed beyond that which a school can offer. An investment early in mental health treatment will pay long-term dividends for the child, the child’s family and the wider community.
It comes down to making our communities and our schools welcoming places where adults are paying attention to the child refugees in their care. My work on resilience has taught me that most children cope well with even horrific challenges when their environments offer them relationships, powerful identities, opportunities to make decisions, safety, pride in their culture, and a sense of belonging. We mustn’t forget that these child refugees are our future. The more multicultural we make our societies the more resilient we will all be in an increasingly globalizing world. Refugee kids offer a limitless source of potential. Our role as their hosts is to ensure that potential is realized.